Battle of Tours: Franks Turn the Islamic Tide

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Battle of Tours: Franks Turn the Islamic Tide

"Battle of Poitiers [Tours] in October 732" by Charles de Steuben (1788-1856)
Oil on canvas painting (1834-1837?); at the Gallery of Battles, Versailles Palace, France
[Charles Martel is the mounted figure left-of-center, brandishing a battle axe]
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: October 25, AD 732

Depending on your views, today's conflict was a turning point in history, or just one chapter in the continuing struggle of Christian versus Muslim. I will present the facts, and let you decide.


In the early years of the eighth century AD, the Muslim conquest continued. Since the death of Mohammed, Arab warriors had conquered Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Persia, Syria, and Tunisia. In the year 711, an Arab-Berber army crossed the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar) and invaded the Visigothic kingdom of Spain. The Visigoths fought these invaders at the battle of Guadalete, where their king Roderic was killed. The final conquest of Iberia took at least another decade. The new Islamic province was re-named al-Andalus (also known as Andalusia). Between 714 and 731, the Muslims of Andalusia launched a number of raids into the Merovingian Frankish kingdom (modern-day France), seeking to extend the borders of Islam. Their only major success was a temporary conquest of Septimania, in the far southwest corner of France on the Mediterranean Sea, centered on the city of Narbonne.

However, the Frankish kingdom was not terribly stable. It was divided into three weak sub-kingdoms: Austrasia, Burgundy, and Neustria. Each realm had its own ruler, and each ruler was constantly jockeying to be the overall ruler. Even worse, the "king" of each realm was not terribly powerful. Consequently, most of the actual power was held by a prime minister of sorts called the "mayor of the palace."

Frankish Territory in AD 714; Merovingian Kingdom includes area in green and pink. From 715-732, the Duchy of Aquitaine (yellow) was semi-independent of Frankish rule
Frankish Territory in AD 714; Merovingian Kingdom includes area in green and pink. From 715-732, the Duchy of Aquitaine (yellow) was semi-independent of Frankish rule

In the year 714 or 715, taking advantage of a Frankish civil war, Duke Eudes (also spelled Odo) of Aquitaine declared his virtual independence of Frankish rule. He managed to maintain this separation for nearly 20 years. Odo made an alliance with a breakaway Muslim ruler in northern Spain in 729, marrying off his illegitimate daughter to cement the deal. However, this Muslim rebel was quickly deposed and executed two years later, while the Andalusian Saracens invaded and extensively ransacked several areas of Aquitaine.

The province of Aquitaine at this time held fast to its Roman heritage, despite the fall of the West Roman Empire nearly two-and-a-half centuries earlier. In fact, Aquitanian chronicles of this time period referred to the Merovingians – their nominal overlords – as "barbari," or barbarians. [Part of this animosity may have stemmed from the fact that the Aquitanians accepted Christianity at least two hundred years before the Franks.] Odo's army was a mainly mounted force, with foot militias serving as city guards. There were also a number of shrines, monasteries, and other religious sites that offered tempting targets to Muslim raiders.

In May or June of 732, a large Muslim raiding force crossed the Pyrennes Mountains into Aquitaine. It was led by Abd al-Rahman al-Ghafiqi, the governor of Andalusia. By late summer, the Muslim army attacked and sacked the cities of Toulouse, Périgeaux, Saintes, and Angoulême; plundered the Basilica of Sainte-Hilaire outside of Poitiers; and beat Duke Odo in at least two separate battles. Despite these setbacks, Odo still commanded a large contingent of Aquitanian cavalry – probably his personal comitatus – which likely included a number of Basques and Gascons. Desperate to save his realm, Odo entered Neustria to meet with the Merovingian mayor of the palace, Charles Martel (from the Latin martellus, "hammer"). The two men met, possibly near Paris, with Odo offering his assistance to the Frankish leader to repel the Muslim invasion. In exchange, the Aquitanian ruler agreed to recognize the Franks as his actual overlords. Shortly afterwards, Charles Martel issued a general ban, a military summons seeking to assemble the largest possible army of the Merovingian kingdom to confront the Islamic threat to their domain.

Sixteen-century depiction of Charles Martell; From book
Sixteen-century depiction of Charles Martell
From book "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum" by Guillaume Rouille

Frankish Army

In his role as mayor of the palaces, Charles Martel was ideally suited. Besides taking care of the many administrative duties, Charles was a keen military commander. Beginning in the year 716, he led the armies of the Austrasia to ultimate victory in a Frankish civil war. Between 718 and 732, Charles led the Frankish armies to victories over the Alemanni, the Saxons, the Frisians, and the Bavarians. He won the loyalty of many of the Frankish bishops and abbots by donating funds and lands to the church. However, Martel realized he would need troops for possible year-round campaigning. Within a few years, he turned around and seized some of the church property back and used their income to fund the building a standing Frankish army.

Frankish heavy infantryman, ca. AD 732 (Illustration courtesy of
Frankish heavy infantryman, ca. AD 732
(Illustration courtesy of

Martel's army was the first standing permanent army since the fall of Rome in 476. At its core was a body of tough, seasoned heavy infantry who displayed exceptional resolution in every battle they fought. The Frankish infantry wore as much as 70 pounds of armor – including their helmets, heavy wooden shields with an iron boss, and chain or lamellar mail. Their main weapons were swords, spears, and their own unique "terror weapon," the francisca. This heavy, unbalanced throwing axe was carried by every infantryman. When charging a foe, they would wait until almost contacting the enemy. Then every man would throw the axe, with the intent to disrupt the foe's line or shatter his shield.

Martel had taken the money and property he had seized from the church and paid local nobles to supply trained, ready infantry year round. This was the core of veterans who served with him on a permanent basis, and as one historian said, "provided a steady supply of dependable troops year around." While other Germanic cultures, such as the Visigoths or Vandals, had a proud martial tradition, and the Franks themselves had an annual muster of military aged men, the former were only able to field armies around planting and harvest. It was Martel's creation of a system whereby he could call on troops year round that would be continued by Martel's grandson, Carolus Magnus, aka Charlemagne.

The Merovingian Frankish army, while dominated by heavy infantry, also had heavy and light cavalry contingents. For the most part, the heavy horsemen were derived from the personal comitatus of individual Frankish noblemen. They were armed and armored similarly to the Frankish infantry. These men were then formed into impromptu larger units. They would occasionally be instructed to dismount and fight on foot with the infantry. Light cavalry, usually from Aquitaine, Brittany, or the border regions with Spain, were more lightly armored, and usually armed with javelin and dagger or sword. These men were scouts and often used to harass a retreating enemy.

Umayyad Army

The composition of the Umayyad invasion force is completely speculative. By this time period in the Islamic conquest era, cavalry was becoming a larger part of such armies. The vast majority of the force likely consisted of Arabs, whose ancestors had fought their way across North Africa to Spain during the mid-seventh through the early-eighth centuries. Contact with, and conquest of, the Sassanid Persians caused the Arab cavalry to morph from mostly light cavalry to a larger number of heavy cavalrymen. Foot archers and javelinmen were no longer the majority of these armies, though they were probably present.

Berber light horseman, ca. AD 730 (Illustration courtesy of
Berber light horseman, ca. AD 730
(Illustration courtesy of

However, with the conversion of the Berber tribesmen of Morocco, a larger number of these new adherents began joining the Umayyad armies. The Muslim army that invaded Spain and brought down the Visigothic kingdom was a primarily cavalry force, but a number of the Berbers fought on foot as archers and spearmen. In addition, the Berbers were prone to bring along their families on these campaigns, which swelled the numbers of the army, slowed it down, and made a logistical nightmare for the army's administrators.

Prelude to the Battle

By late August or early September, the Umayyads had generally ravaged western, central, and southern Aquitaine thoroughly. After sacking the basilica of Sainte-Hilaire, the Muslim army began a northeasterly march toward the northern area of the principality. Their next probable target was the abbey of St.-Martin of Tours, one of the richest Christian sites in France. Besides housing the body of the saint, it also housed his miraculous cloak. [This cloak would be carried into battle by the Merovingian Franks, whether on the occasion of this battle I was not able to determine.] As one of many pilgrim way-stations, the abbey was very wealthy, and drew the attention of the marauding Muslims.

However, Charles Martel was now on the move. His general call-to-arms attracted troops from all over the Merovingian kingdom. Numbers given by contemporary chroniclers are decidedly unreliable (up to 80,000), but a good round number is probably between 15,000 to 20,000 Franks, Bretons, Burgundians, Alemannians, and Aquitanians. Historians believe that nearly this entire force was mounted, allowing them to march quickly to meet the Muslim threat.

During early to mid-October, the Saracens continued their wide-ranging raids of the area between Poitiers and Tours. The Muslims were now loaded down with booty from their campaign, and were moving slowly. It seems likely that some of these raiders met resistance from the leading elements of Martel's army. This forced the Arabs to pull back toward Poitiers, as news of the advancing Frankish army probably became known. The Arab-Berber army was probably about the same size as the Frankish force – or perhaps a bit larger – at between 20,000 to 25,000 effectives. The Muslims made camp in an area near the town of Cenon, between the Clain and Vienne rivers. This was a heavily forested area, not terribly suitable for agriculture, except in small clearings near rivers or large streams.

Charles Martel then gained the initiative on Abd al-Rahman. The Franks managed to locate the fortified camp of the invaders, and began to make plans. A few miles away from the Arab camp was a former Roman mansio, or agricultural settlement, named Vitus Pictavis (known today as Vieux-Poitiers), long abandoned but perfect for Martel's purpose. He turned the former settlement – which also boasted a small amphitheatre – into his forward base camp. On about October 18, he drew up his army in a nearby open area, protecting his flanks by using the thick forests. His force also blocked the main Roman road which led northward to Tours. This act forced the invading Saracens into battle…

Quickly, word of the appearance of the Christians got back to the Muslim camp. Martel had taken the initiative away from Abd al-Rahman, choosing the place of battle. For about a week, Muslim and Christian forces skirmished and tested the strength of their opponent. Both commanders also sent desperate messages for further reinforcements, before the battle of Tours began on October 25.

Battle of Tours

[The actual date of the battle is generally given as October 11. However, Muslim chroniclers stated that Abd al-Rahman was killed during the battle on October 25. Christian sources stated that the battle took place on a Saturday in October of 732. The four Saturdays in October of that year were the 4th, 11th, 18th, and 25th. For that reason, I followed their lead for dating this battle.]

There are a number of confusing, often contradictory, chronicles, histories, and the like devoted to this battle. I have synthesized them into what I believe is the course of the battle.

At some time in the early morning, the Frankish army took its positions south of its mansio encampment, as it had for the past week. This time, however, the now-reinforced Muslim army marched out from its camp and lined up for battle. The Frankish army was on a plain called Moussais. They arrayed themselves into what has been termed a "deep square" (more likely a large rectangle), all heavy infantrymen with possibly a few archers and/or javelinmen, directly behind the first two or three lines. In addition, there was also likely a rearguard – consisting of the Aquitanian horsemen – probably positioned to reinforce the Frankish line at any place it was threatened; this force would play its own important role in the fight.

The Arab-Berber army occupied a ridgeline facing the already-deployed Franks. The invaders probably lined up in three main battles, or divisions, consisting almost entirely of heavy cavalry, light horsemen, and probably a few horse archers. There was also a forward vanguard on the right forward of the right flank, probably consisting of the archers and javelinmen. There was also a rear guard, prepared to meet a Christian flanking attack (though they would be used for another purpose later in the battle).

'Charles Martel in the Battle of Poitiers [Tours]' (Illustration courtesy of
"Charles Martel in the Battle of Poitiers [Tours]"
(Illustration courtesy of

The Umayyads launched heavy attacks against the Frankish phalanx throughout the morning into the early afternoon. Expecting the Christians to break and run after facing the flower of Muslim heavy cavalry, the Franks instead stood their ground, making good on the years of training instilled in them by Martell. In fact, one of the most famous quotes concerning the Franks comes from the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754, saying:

"And in the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice [emphasis added]; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief, the people of the Austrasians [Franks] carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts [of the foe]."

Most of the chronicles also state that the Muslim horsemen broke into the interior of the Frankish phalanx on several occasions, threatening their commander. But an anonymous Arab chronicler stated: "The Muslim horsemen dashed fierce and frequent forward against the battalions of the Franks, who resisted manfully, and many fell dead on either side." On each occasion, Martel's personal retinue protected their commander with their own lives. The fight continued into the early afternoon, and could have gone either way. But…

Battle of Moussais (Tours), from open-air museum at Moussais-le-Bataille, France (Illustration courtesy of
Battle of Moussais (Tours), from open-air museum at Moussais-le-Bataille, France
(Illustration courtesy of

After several hours of hard fighting, a rumor began circulating through the Muslim army: the Franks had attacked the Umayyad camp and was pillaging it. Almost to a man, the invaders pulled back to defend their plunder. It is likely that the Aquitanian horsemen, little used during the battle and itching for action, took some little-known back roads or forest tracks and discovered the barely-protected Muslim base camp. The Christian horsemen brushed aside the guards and began sifting through the Muslim booty, and likely tried to acquire a few Muslim women and releasing Christian prisoners…

Soon, the majority of the Muslim cavalry broke contact with the Frankish phalanx and made their way back to the camp to protect their spoils. The Christian pursued, and soon the fight for the Umayyad camp was underway. As the afternoon became dusk, tragedy struck the Muslims; their commander Abd al-Rahman al-Ghafiqi was surrounded by Frankish attackers and killed. By this point in the battle, it was almost nightfall. The Franks withdrew from the battle, back to their original battle line, and stood to all night long, awaiting further attacks by the Umayyads.


At dawn of the next morning, Charles and his men expected the Saracens to resume the battle. By mid-morning of October 26, no enemy came into view. Charles dispatched scouts to the site of the Muslim camp, and found it deserted. All the tents and – more importantly – all the booty was left behind by the retreating Umayyads. Once the Franks thoroughly pillaged the camp, Charles and his men pulled back to Austrasian territory. Duke Odo and his cavalrymen pursued part of the retreating Muslims, then returned to his now-devastated capital of Bordeaux.

As with most battles of this period, casualty figures are as arbitrary as the size of the armies. One estimate for the Frankish casualties is between 1100 and 1500; however, I feel they were probably heavier, perhaps as many as 5000 to 8000. Meanwhile, the Saracens probably suffered between 10,000 and 12,000 killed, wounded and captured. The Arab-Berber force withdrew south of the Pyrenees Mountains.

Footnote #1: The Muslims continued to launch raids into France, but Charles and his successors opposed them and eventually expelled the last Muslims from Narbonne in 759.

Footnote #2: As a result of his smashing victory at Tours, Charles the Mayor of the Palace earned the nom de guerre Martel, or the hammer. He would lead Frankish troops against the Umayyads for the next decade. In 737, when the Austrasian king died, he assumed the powers of the throne and adopted the title princeps et dux Francorum (duke and first among the Franks). He died in 741 at the age of approximately 53.

Footnote #3: The majority of the information for this post was obtained from the book "Poitiers AD 732: Charles Martel turns the Islamic Tide," written by David Nicolle and published by Osprey Publishing.

Footnote #4: The area in France where this battle occurred has changed little in almost 1300 years. There is an open-air museum with various displays at the modern-day area of Moussais-le-Bataille, about 20 miles northeast of Poitiers. The author of the above-mentioned Osprey book terms Moussais-le-Bataille "…not a village, nor even a hamlet, but a collection of largely abandoned farms, some of which have been turned into country homes."

The Frankish view of the likely Muslim position from the plain of Moussais Modern view of the battlefield near Poitiers, France (Illustration courtesy of
The Frankish view of the likely Muslim position from the plain of Moussais
Modern view of the battlefield near Poitiers, France
(Illustration courtesy of

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